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McKibben on Obama, Environment: The Cynics ‘Were Right’

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Posted on Dec 23, 2013
linh.m.do (CC BY 2.0)

Bill McKibben.

Bill McKibben, the writer and environmental activist behind the 350.org campaign, tees off in the current Rolling Stone on the Obama administration, accusing the White House of taking small steps in the direction of fighting climate change, but then backtracking with climate-threatening attitudes toward coal, gas and oil extraction.

It’s a well-rounded indictment of an administration’s worldview that more fossil-fuel energy is better, when the vast majority of scientists look at it as suicidal folly. From the piece:

If you want to understand how people will remember the Obama climate legacy, a few facts tell the tale: By the time Obama leaves office, the U.S. will pass Saudi Arabia as the planet’s biggest oil producer and Russia as the world’s biggest producer of oil and gas combined. In the same years, even as we’ve begun to burn less coal at home, our coal exports have climbed to record highs. We are, despite slight declines in our domestic emissions, a global-warming machine: At the moment when physics tell us we should be jamming on the carbon brakes, America is revving the engine.

You could argue that private industry, not the White House, has driven that boom, and in part you’d be right. But that’s not what Obama himself would say. Here’s Obama speaking in Cushing, Oklahoma, last year, in a speech that historians will quote many generations hence. It is to energy what Mitt Romney’s secretly taped talk about the 47 percent was to inequality. Except that Obama was out in public, boasting for all the world to hear:

“Over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quad­rupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth, and then some. ... In fact, the problem ... is that we’re actually producing so much oil and gas ... that we don’t have enough pipeline capacity to transport all of it where it needs to go.”

Actually, it doesn’t “need to go” anywhere. It needs to stay in the ground and let demand propel development of alternative fuel sources and drive the kind of technological innovation that can change cultures.

Obama has had the opportunity and authority to make smart decisions on climate change. But he keeps making the wrong calls, McKibben argues.

But that didn’t mean that the president had to make the problem worse, which he’s done with stunning regularity. Consider:

• Just days before the BP explosion, the White House opened much of the offshore U.S. to new oil drilling. (“Oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills,” he said by way of explanation. “They are technologically very advanced.”)

• In 2012, with the greatest Arctic melt on record under way, his administration gave Shell Oil the green light to drill in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea. (“Our pioneering spirit is naturally drawn to this region, for the economic opportunities it presents,” the president said.)

• This past August, as the largest forest fire in the history of the Sierra Nevadas was burning in Yosemite National Park, where John Muir invented modern environmentalism, the Bureau of Land Management decided to auction 316 million tons of taxpayer-owned coal in Wyoming’s Powder River basin. According to the Center for American Progress, the emissions from that sale will equal the carbon produced from 109 million cars.

Even on questions you’d think would be open-and-shut, the administration has waffled. In November, for instance, the EPA allowed Kentucky to weaken a crucial regulation, making it easier for mountaintop-removal coal mining to continue. As the Sierra Club’s Bruce Nilles said, “It’s dismaying that the Obama administration approved something even worse than what the Bush administration proposed.”

Dismaying, indeed. And environmentally threatening.

Of course, the even bigger concern is what next, when a putative progressive in the White House is so aligned with the oil and gas interests? The political field may as well be a gas field, and the climate is what’s getting fracked.

—Posted by Scott Martelle.

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